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  Catholic Group Prepares Conference at Fordham

By Gary Stern gstern@thejournalnews.com
The Journal News
October 12, 2003

When Voice of the Faithful rose up in Boston during the Catholic Church's horrific year of 2002, demanding an undefined role for the laity in their suddenly vulnerable church, the group was widely seen as sincere, a touch naive and unlikely to last.

After all, the church's sex-abuse scandal would fade from the public consciousness. The nation's bishops would wait out the crisis without opening their ledgers or boardrooms, and ordinary Catholics would lose interest in cracking their church's famously sealed bureaucracy.

Almost two years later, though, as Voice of the Faithful readies for a major conference on Fordham University's Bronx campus, there are signs that the group is fine-tuning its mission and finding a voice in scattered parishes and even the larger Catholic community.

The group is still viewed with suspicion by some bishops and others who insist it is covertly seeking to upend the magisterium what the church believes is its God-given power to teach doctrine. But Voice of the Faithful has focused on structural reform in the church, and a national goal is to fashion new guidelines for how parish councils might operate.

Such an initiative may lack drama, but it says to critics that Voice of the Faithful plans to be around and seek realistic, not radical, change.

"The last thing in the world they are is revolutionary," said Sister Dorothy Ann Kelly, a former president of the College of New Rochelle, who will serve on a conference panel about restoring trust in the church. "No one is looking to overthrow the bishops, to challenge the authority of the pope. They are looking for the laity to be included, where appropriate, in the voice of the church, as the Second Vatican Council promised. Anyone in the church who thinks this is a challenge to their authority should meet a real challenge sometime."

The Oct. 25 conference at Fordham will be Voice of the Faithful's second major gathering, after a similar meeting in Boston last year, and hundreds of Catholics are expected from the tri-state area. Eugene Kennedy, a former priest and a high-profile critic of the Catholic hierarchy, will give the keynote address about healing the church.

Advocates for victims of sexual abuse by priests will speak about the scandal. Some two dozen Catholic scholars and writers will serve on panels about topics such as the priest shortage, restoring the church's credibility, Catholic youth and parish leadership.

To date, Voice of the Faithful is best known for its major victory and its committed opposition. The group helped focus lay pressure on Cardinal Bernard Law, who eventually resigned as archbishop of Boston. It also has been banned from meeting in nine dioceses, among them Rockville Centre on Long Island; Bridgeport, Conn.; and Newark, N.J.

"We are centrist Catholics," said Tom Malarkey of Purchase, a leader of a Westchester-Fairfield chapter that meets at an Episcopal church in Greenwich. "We have no problem with the magisterium or the Gospel. But the administrative side, which allowed the transfer of abusive priests, leaves a lot to be desired. We are looking for accountability and transparency. We want an advisory role for the average Catholic, not just big contributors or those recommended by the hierarchy."

The group claims 30,000 members although most are marginally involved and 190 affiliates in 72 U.S. dioceses. The group lists 41 affiliates on Long Island, where it is banned, but only five within the Archdiocese of New York, which has not taken an official position on Voice of the Faithful.

Tellingly, the archdiocese's monthly newspaper, Catholic New York, refused to run a paid advertisement for the conference. Catholic New York also rejected an ad last year for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"This is a Catholic meeting about Catholic issues, but we could not place an ad in our Catholic newspaper," said Marie Ford Reilly, a Voice of the Faithful member who is organizing the conference. "It was very disappointing."

Arthur McKenna, general manager of Catholic New York, said the newspaper makes internal decisions about advertising.

"This paper is published by the Archdiocese of New York, and obviously they have the right to set these policies," he said.

Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said he did not know the circumstances behind the ad's rejection.

Reilly said Voice of the Faithful has inquired about meeting with Paul Ward, who is coordinating the archdiocese's efforts to prevent sexual abuse, for general talks. The archdiocese has not ruled out the idea, she said.

The fact that Fordham, a Jesuit university, was willing to host the conference is seen by many involved as a gentle sign of support. Fordham's new president, the Rev. Joseph McShane, is expected to offer a welcome on the morning after his high-profile inauguration.

Fordham, though, does not want to be too closely associated with Voice of the Faithful.

"This arrangement is a conference services agreement, nothing more," the university said in a statement.

Joseph O'Callaghan, a professor emeritus of history at Fordham who helped line up speakers for the conference, said the university made it clear the conference is separate from inauguration-related events.

"We spoke to Father McShane, and he was positive about what we are doing," O'Callaghan said. "As far as any perception of support, Fordham has to answer for itself."

The big question facing Voice of the Faithful is whether it can build its membership, and involve young adults, as it digs in on slow-moving goals like structural change.

"Voice is still really a Boston phenomenon, and most of its activity is in the Northeast," said Paul Lakeland, a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University who has written a new book on the Catholic laity. "I wonder what will happen when (Archbishop) Sean O'Malley deals with the crisis in Boston. Will interest drop? Structural change is drawn out and leaves room for disagreement."

Michael Hoynes of Scarborough, a leader of a Voice of the Faithful affiliate that meets at St. Ann's Catholic Church in Ossining, said the group's focus on parish councils was important, realistic and long-term.

"Our feeling is to start at the bottom and work up," he said. "If the Archdiocese of New York had 200 strong parish councils, they could influence things on the diocesan level. It would be nice if this happened overnight, but we know it will take time."

John Healey of Bronxville, who is involved with a group of lay Catholics in the New Rochelle area that meets to discuss the sex-abuse scandal, said the group reached an unexpected conclusion at a gathering last week.

"The general feeling," said Healey, retired director of the Archbishop Hughes Institute for Religion and Culture at Fordham, "is that, right now, whatever its limitations, Voice of the Faithful is the only thing we have going for us."

Reach Gary Stern at gstern@thejournalnews.com or 914-694-3513
 
 
 

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